Ted Kotcheff discusses Wake in Fright, kangaroo slaughter and existentialism

As promised, here is the second part of our interview with Ted Kotcheff. Here Mr. Kotcheff goes into detail about his 1971 film Wake in Fright, which will be released on Blu-ray and DVD next week by the Masters of Cinema.

How did you first come to make Wake in Fright and how significant was it not being an Australian and making this film?

In 1969 I was living in London and a close friend of mine, Evan Jones – we had done a film together called Two Gentlemen Sharing, which was at the Venice Film Festival in ’67 – and one day he came to me and said, ‘I’ve been hired to write a screenplay from a book called Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook’. He handed me the book and said, ‘read it! This is right up your alley. A lost week in the Outback’ He was right about Wake in Fright, I responded to its theme, its central character, its atmosphere very strongly. But I was at first a bit trepidacious about making a film about a world I knew so little about. However, being a Canadian, when I arrived in Australia I discovered that the Outback was not that dissimilar to the Northern Canada. The same vast, empty spaces that paradoxically are not liberating but claustrophobic, imprisoning. In both there was the identical hyper-masculine societies. I used to describe Canada as Australia on the rocks. That’s how it all came about. I loved the book, it’s a great book. And I love the film.

The restoration was obviously a very big deal as the film was lost in away for many years.

The film was lost for twenty-five years. The editor [Anthony Buckley] spent ten years of his life going all over the world looking for it and finally found it in a warehouse in Pittsburgh, two hundred cans of negative, tri-separation, inter-negatives, inter-positives, music tracks and so on in two large wooden containers. On the outside of the containers was written in big red letters, ‘For Destruction’. If Tony had arrived one week later it would have been incinerated and the film would have been gone forever. However, the negative was almost useless. It was scratched, torn, nobody had looked after it. It was badly faded. Another fan of the film, a guy from Deluxe Sydney, spent three years of his own time using digital techniques to save it. And working frame by frame he restored the film to this pristine condition. The print that was made from it was astonishing, as if it was shot yesterday.

And what was it like watching it like that for the first time in so long?

I was so gratified. You see how little hair I have? That’s from when my film was lost for over twenty-five years and they looked all over the world for it. And then they found it and restored it. One thing that has pleased me so much is that it’s being distributed in England now. One of the things that every director looks for in his work is longevity. So much stuff is like Kleenex, you see it and then it’s gone. But when a film like this is going to be shown all over England and Scotland it’s thrilling for me. It’s what you dream about as a director. That your film has longevity, that it will transcend its own period. It’s got an appeal that comes into a whole different time of life.

The central character comes close to committing suicide, the film does indeed feel very claustrophobic and there is the sense that he is perhaps looking for a purpose. Was existentialism an influence on you and the film at all?

It’s funny you should mention existentialism, because I was a big fan of Jean Paul Satre and existentialism. I lived in Paris about that time and I used to go down to a bar called Les Deux Magots, where he used to have lunch every day, with his girlfriend Simone de Beauvoir. And I used to sit from a distance, watching him. It’s funny because the only country where the film had success was in France. It was in the Cannes Film festival in 1971. Of course, the French loved it. It played for nine months on the Champs Elysees in Paris. That’s the only country where it was a success. Back then.

The existential angst is, of course, timeless but there is also what feels like historical specificity to it. The fact that is was made around the time of Vietnam. Was that something that you feel fed into the film?

It’s funny you should say that, you’re very perspicacious. I was thinking when I saw it again, after it had been restored, that my God there is so much despair in this film. What were you thinking of Ted? And I realised, yes, there was Vietnam and the Cold War was at its height. I just felt despair radiating from the film. Despair about human beings and it permeated the film. I will always remember that I had a poet friend of mine who said, ‘You bastard Kotcheff, that moment when he’s out in the desert walking to Sydney and he dumps all his books out in the middle of nowhere. I noticed that one of the books is Plato’s Dialogues. [laughs]. You think we wouldn’t notice that you dumped one of the great works of philosophy as useless in man’s despair.’ So, yes, you’re right, it permeated. I felt very despairing of human beings at this time.

Do you think the bleakness and sadness in the film was what it took people a long time to fall in love with, because it’s something difficult to watch the first time? The film is quite upsetting to watch.

When it was first released in 1971, in spite of a popular critical response, the popular opinion was lukewarm. I think people were a bit affronted by the depiction of the Aussie male and of human beings generally. I mean, Jack Thomspon – a wonderful actor who was in the film – said that in 1971 he was at an Australian cinema and a man got up, pointed to screen and shouted, ‘This is not us!’. Another voice shouted, ‘Sit down you fool, it is us’. I don’t think it was just Australian men who thought that, it’s the depiction of human beings that got to the audience.

The kangaroo scene is incredibly disturbing too. I’m a vegetarian and very pro-animal rights so anything to do with animals always upsets me no end in films. But that scene is something else, it upset me even more.

I’m a vegetarian too. I’ve been a vegan for the last four or five years. So, can you imagine me having to do that sequence? To kill an animal for a film, it’s unthinkable. I didn’t know how I was going to do this climactic sequence. This is where this guy hits rock bottom and discovers that he is capable of things that are morally wrong. The whole film is about a man who succumbs to the dark shadow, the dark side of his own nature. An odyssey of self-discovery and education and civilisation have a very thin defence against the yahoo in each every one of us. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to do this climatic sequence, feeling as how you and I both feel.

And then I was saved as one of the crew came up to me, who had heard about my dilemma. He said, ‘Ted, you do know they kill hundreds of kangaroos every night in the Outback.’ I said, no, why? He said, ‘Oh it’s big business. They shoot the kangaroos, they skin them and they send them to America for the pet food industry’. I said, you mean American cats and dogs are eating kangaroos?!. He told me that they go out every night, six pairs of hunters, going in different directions. And they have a big refrigerated truck and they kill all night long. They kill hundreds and they hang them up in this huge transport truck, which is refrigerated. So I managed to find these guys and they allowed me to put a camera up on the back and they have this spotlight that freezes the kangaroos and then they shoot them. I tell you, if you’re vegetarian like me, it was horrendous. My producer was a vegetarian too and he fainted when they started to shoot.

They had a retractable windshield and mount the guns on the dashboard. They have a spotlight that they work from inside and the kangaroos freeze. One of the guys asked me where I would like them to shoot them. In the brains, the heart or the kidneys. I asked what the difference was. He said that if you shoot them in the kidneys they die right there on the spot. If you shoot them in the heart they take a few leaps before they die. Shoot them in the brain and he said it was amazing, they do this huge, huge leap into the air and then they crash to the ground dead. I said, look, don’t do anything for me please, just go about your business. I didn’t want them to do anything for me. You understand why. I asked them to just get on with it.

Some of the footage is unviewable. The Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had one of their guys with me and he said, ‘Ted you’ve got to show this.’ And I said, I can’t, I can’t show this. The audience will run screaming from the movie theatre.

What happens was that [the marksmen] were so accurate but they started drinking, I discovered, at about two o’clock in the morning. And they started to miss! [The kangaroos] were bleeding to death. They had to chase them and put them out of their misery. It was a nightmare. It was a total nightmare. The guys from The Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals kept pushing me, telling me that people in Sydney don’t know what’s going on in the Outback. Pleading me to show it. The worst fifty percent, I didn’t put in the picture. People would have just gone screaming, yelling out of the cinema.

One good thing that came out of it though is that fifteen years ago I got a call from the The Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals saying that because of my film – they screened it continually – and the pressure that it exerted, the Australian government banned the killing of kangaroos for the pet food industry. So I was full of virtue.

It sounds very much like you felt personally many of the things that the main character feels? Did you do a lot of research, living out there?

Yes, I did. Let me me give you an example. One thing you learn as a director and writer of a film is when you’re going to a place you don’t know. A small town like Broken Hill, is take the local newspaper editor out to dinner. He knows everything. He said to me, ‘Ted, you do know that men outnumber the women three to one’. And asked where the brothels are and he said that there are no brothels. And I asked what they do for human contact. Human beings can’t survive without human contact. He said, ‘they fight’. And then I understood. Because everyone wanted to fight me all the time. I was the outsider. The fighting was not belligerence. When a guy challenged me he used to stick his jaw out at me. Now, I grew up in the streets and how do you win a street fight? You start it. In understood. The fighting was, as I said, not belligerence but a desperation for human touch and hitting was the easiest way of getting touched. That’s why I had that scene in the picture in which they’re rolling around hugging each other after they’ve been fighting. It’s kind of homoerotic but they’re not homosexuals.

Wake in Fright has burnt orange hues to the look of the film, even the scenes inside, and there’s a definite consistent look to the film.

I wanted the film to be immersive. I wanted to put you into that hot, dusty, fly-ridden world that the characters inhabited. So, for example, I got my production designer and my wardrobe designer and I said, ‘listen here, in my film I do not wish to ever see a cool colour. I do not wish to see blue and I do not wish to see green. The only colours I want are yellow, red, orange and burnt sienna.’ And that is indeed the case. They did a great job in that respect. You never see one piece of coshing or one room that has blue or green in it. I wanted to make an immersive picture where you’re dumped into this world and experience what they were growing through.

Wake in Fright is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on the 31st of March.